High Pay for Low Skill Will No Longer be the Michigan Way

High Pay for Low Skill Will No Longer be the Michigan Way

September 28, 2010/The Grand Rapids Press Editorial Board 


With apologies to the Realtors who invented the original joke, nearly everybody agrees the three keys to success for Michigan’s economic future are: Education, education, education.


How’s that going for us? Not too well, if recent statistics from the Lumina Foundation for Education are any measure. The figures come in the foundation’s report, “A stronger nation through higher education,” the latest assessment of the Indianapolis-based group’s “big goal” that 60 percent of the U.S. population have a high-quality post-secondary degree or credential by 2025.


Nationally 37.7 percent of the U.S. population ages 25 to 64 held a two- our four-year college degree in 2007. In 2008, the most recent year for which Census statistics are available, the number had climbed to 37.9 percent. That small rate of increase, were it to continue, would put the nation at a higher education attainment level of 46.6 percent by 2025, well shy of the Lumina goal.


The Lumina goal should be Michigan’s. As the report points out, a recent analysis of economic and work force by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that 62 percent of Michigan’s jobs will require post-secondary education by 2018.


Yet Michigan is doing worse than the national average. Here, 35.7 percent of adults in the 25 to 64 age group had a two- or four-year degree in 2008. That lower level of college attainment is no doubt the remnant of an industrial economy that allowed people to go straight from high school to the assembly line, earn a comfortable middle-class living and retire in relative ease. That is no longer possible. Today, even manufacturing jobs will be more technically complex and require more education. High pay for low skill will no longer be the Michigan way.


In 2004, the Cherry Commission on Higher Education sounded that alarm bell. The commission, headed by Lt. Gov. John Cherry, warned that if the state failed to invest in education, Michigan would become “a stagnant backwater in a dynamic world economy.”


At the time of the Cherry Commission report, Michigan was behind the nation in four-year degrees. Michigan still lags, this recent report confirms. The battered state economy has meant a steady under-investment in community colleges and universities, as well as tenuous funding for K-12 education. Those trend lines don’t lead anywhere good.


One hopeful spot outlined by the Lumina report is the number of people in Michigan who have completed some college without earning a degree — 1.8 million of them in 2008, a quarter of the state’s adult population. According to the report: “If only a small portion of this group could be enticed to return to college to complete either a two- or four-year degree, it would go a long way to helping Michigan reach the goal of 60 percent higher education attainment.”


Aside from searching for ways to move these one-time college students from credits to degrees, Michigan needs an honest assessment of costs at every level of education and a clear-eyed look at an outdated tax structure that will continue to starve essential state services including education. Those are agenda items for the next governor and the next Legislature.


In the meantime, there’s much Michigan can learn from this recent Lumina report, starting with how much more we have to learn.


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